Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America
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Crime, passion and lust for power - Sergio Leone's explosive saga of gangland America.
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A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the Lower East Side of Manhattan over thirty years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.

Title:Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date:February 16, 1984
MPAA Rating:R18+
Genres:Drama, Crime
Production Co.:Warner Bros., The Ladd Company
Production Countries:Italy, United States of America
Director:Sergio Leone
Writers:, , , , , , ,
Casts:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Plot Keywords:life and death, corruption, street gang, rape, sadistic, lovesickness, sexual abuse, money laundering, opium
Alternative Titles:
  • C'era una volta in America - [IT]
  • Однажды в Америке - [RU]
  • Il était une fois en Amérique - [FR]
  • Der var engang i Amerika - [DK]
  • 美國往事 - [TW]
  • 원스 어폰 어 타임 인 아메리카 - [KR]
  • C'era una volta in America (1984) - [IT]
  • Once Upon A Time In America - DC - [AU]

Once Upon a Time in America Reviews

  • Make sure you get the director's cut!
    by Philip Van der Veken on 19 September 2004

    459 out of 603 people found the following review useful:

    Many people compare "Once Upon a Time in America" with "The Godfather". In my opinion these two movies can't be compared. Both are masterpieces in their own way, but each of them has a different style. You don't compare a Picasso to Michelangelo's Sixteen Chapel either, do you?

    What is it that makes this movie a masterpiece? Well, first of all there is the director. Sergio Leone is a real master when it comes to creating a special atmosphere, full of mystery, surprises and drama... He's one of the few directors who understands the art of cutting a movie in such a way that you stay focused until the end.

    The way the movie was cut is also the reason why a lot of Americans don't think this movie is very special. There are three versions, but only the European version is how the director imagined it to be. He didn't want his movie to be shown in chronological order (1910's - 1930's - 1960's), but wanted to mix these three periods of time. The studio cut the movie in chronological order, loosing a lot of its originality and therefor getting a lot of bad critics. If you want to see this film the way Sergio Leone saw it, you have to make sure you get the director's cut.

    The second reason why this movie is so great is the music. Ennio Morricone, who is seen as the greatest writer of film music ever, did an excellent job. Together with the images, the music speaks for itself in this movie. From time to time there isn't said a word, but the music and the images on their own tell the story. He understood perfectly what Sergio Leone wanted and composed most of the music even before the movie was shot.

    Last but not least there is also the acting and the script. The actors all did an excellent job. But what else can you expect from actors like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci... They helped making this movie as great as it is by putting there best effort in it. The script helped them with it. It took twelve years to complete, but it hasn't left any detail untouched. The writers really thought of everything when creating it.

    I can really recommend this movie to everyone, but especially to people who like the gangster genre. When you want to see the movie, you better be sure that you will have the time for it. This isn't a movie that is finished after 90 minutes. You'll have to be able to stay focused during 3 hours and 47 minutes, which will certainly not be easy during the first 20 to 30 minutes. Some scenes at the beginning only make sense when you have seen the end of the movie. But when you are able to stay focused, you'll find this one of the best movies you've ever seen. I certainly did and I rewarded it with a well deserved 10/10.

  • A masterpiece and an atrocity!
    by oldguybc on 11 January 2005

    375 out of 559 people found the following review useful:

    This movie was a masterpiece. It ranks as one of the very best in film history, if not the best. At Cannes people yelled and screamed, couldn't believe just how good it was. The profound atrocity was a combination of two completely brainless acts, the first being Zack Stienberg's hatchet job for US release, supposedly requested by either Warner Bros or The Ladd Company (one blames the other now) and the second was the lack of anyone (and everyone)to post anything in this great film for Academy Award consideration, of which probably as many as 14 nominations and 4 sure- fire Oscars went down the toilet.

    These atrocities were perpretrated, I believe, with two reasons in mind, the first to preserve the dim hope of "The Killing Fields" (Daly & Semel's baby) of garnering any awards... and second, to try to boost up the non- foreign chances. Warner Bros knew just how good it was, that goes without saying. The problem was... they already had their share of cash cows and they wanted a real star- studded showpiece to point at. The small minds already had their showpiece but, alas, it was an "eye- tallyan" flick with a producer/director who didn't communicate well. The hatchet job was carefully planned, I believe... the so- called "sneak preview" was done in Canada and not well received, probably due to the fact that the sound system was over- amped and the film 'broke' 3 or 4 times during the showing, what a farce! The awards snub started with the GGs and carried right thru. What a myriad of stupid and utterly pointless decisions! Must have literally tore Leone's heart out when he learned what they had done.

    Morricone's score was a sure- thing Oscar, no question about it. DeNiro and maybe even Woods would have fought it out for best actor, Tuesday Weld as supporting actress, any one of 4 or 5 other supporting actors & actresses, most notably William Forsythe, cinematography, film editing, the list goes on & on... (best picture...Amadeus???? give me a break!!) Just what in the hell were they thinking?

    Saw it in a theater 20 years ago and then again on TV about 1998 and finally in its correct format(on DVD) about two years ago and again last week at a friend's house. Stirred up all those angry thoughts all over again... sorry about that, getting' old & crotchety.

  • Mesmerizing and haunting tale of love, greed, regret, betrayal and revenge
    by jeanpaul-3 on 29 October 1999

    236 out of 316 people found the following review useful:

    This is, for me, one of the finest examples of cinematic art. It isn't a simple, cut-n-dried 90 minute little package that gets wrapped up with a pretty bow at the end. You get pulled in by the enigmatic opening that unwinds the threads of the story to be found later. For many people having half an hour of purely visual story telling, of stories that are only mysteries at that point, before anything becomes truly linear is difficult to follow and discourages to many people. Our own memories are only snippets that only become linear as we concentrate on scenes from our lives. Once Upon a Time in America is like that as we follow Noodles through the `significant' part of his life - the times that formed him. When the story actually starts, we meet the girl that he always loved but could never have.

    David `Noodles' Aaronson (DeNiro) was a kid on the very mean streets of Brooklyn when organized crime was born in America and he grew into and out of it. That's the simplest synopsis of the plot. The reality is that this isn't a movie about gangsters. Being a gangster is the easiest way for Noodles to survive and get ahead, but it also alienates and ruins his one love. Whenever he is close to giving himself to Deborah he always gets pulled back into the gang, in some form or another.

    DeNiro's portrayal is of a gangster, through and through, who also has a conscience that, while not preventing him from being a ruthless killer, rules his life with regret, remorse and guilt. Leone takes a bit of poet/historic license by showing the Brooklyn Bridge being built in the background (the bridge had been built 40 years before), but it symbolizes Noodles' own growth. When the bridge is just pilings and incomplete towers, Noodles is just forming his future. By the time the bridge is complete, Noodles is nothing but a gangster and the bridge is majestic. When he returns 35 years later our view of the bridge is from under a freeway -- the world has moved along, but the bridge and Noodles are just as they were.

    The length: If you're looking for a brief distraction that you'll barely remember 30 minutes later, this isn't the movie for you. However, if you are prepared and able to be undistributed for the nearly 4 hours that this film uses to compress a lifetime -- you will be rewarded with many facets of thought and examination.

  • A Profound Expression of Truth Regarding Friendship andBetrayal
    by RobertCartland on 17 January 2000

    228 out of 313 people found the following review useful:

    This film is a profound expression of truth regarding friendship and betrayal. Noodles, played by Robert De Niro and Scott Tiler (during childhood), is a simple man and a thug with one credo: you can battle the entire world but you never betray a friend. During the course of this film we experience various pieces of Noodles's life, from childhood, through young adulthood and old age. We learn what happens to his friends, his foes and the love of his life, Deborah. The time span considered is long, including Noodles's childhood shortly after the turn of the century, through the prohibition era, and finally the 1960's.

    The film is about relationships; the many years Noodles spends away from his friends receive only a cursory mention. The film, like life and memories, unfolds slowly and reflectively. Sergio Leone's cuts are long and each scene is beautifully amplified my Ennio Morricone's haunting score. The story is not told chronologically. Instead, the chapters of the story are slowly revealed like pieces of a great jigsaw puzzle. Each delicious piece might make us laugh, or cry, or smile, or feel shock. But, as each piece falls into place, a mystery unfolds. When the final piece is revealed, the true essence of the story becomes clear and a sad and beautiful tapestry comes into view.

    This film is a true masterpiece, expressing a profound statement about friendship and betrayal, with fantastic acting, writing, directing and music. There is a shortened, two-and-a-half-hour version of the film released that is a disaster. It is like trying to understand a jigsaw puzzle with half of the pieces missing. The original four-hour film can be viewed and enjoyed several times and each time the viewer will see something new.

  • Best movie ever made?
    by sebwalrusfr on 25 March 2006

    195 out of 324 people found the following review useful:

    Simply the best movie ever made. Dot.

    Life. Love. Friendship. Nostalgia. Souvenirs. Childhood. Adulthood. Betrayal. Children's dreams. Psychology. Sex. Manhood. Womanhood. Romance. Illusions. Acting. Ambition. Glory. Fate. Masochism. Sadism. History. Death...

    Some even say it's a movie on Italian Mafia...

    This movie is to cinema what "A day in the life" is to modern music : an evocation of what life is, in a global approach, with its darker sides and its epic moments, and in the end everything is vain and you die. Magnified as always by the superb work of Ennio Morricone, and the perfect acting of De Niro and Woods, it was for Sergio Leone THE movie of his life, his long time cherished plan, his masterpiece to end with. Additionally, it has become THE movie of the 20th century.

  • Last, butchered, unappreciated, work from one of the greatest...
    by A_Different_Drummer on 6 November 2013

    70 out of 83 people found the following review useful:

    ... Directors of all time. Let's start with a story. Many years ago, when your grandfather was still a boy, a failed, beaten-down actor named Clint Eastwood packed up his horse and saddle (speaking metaphorically here), left Hollywood forever (or so he thought) and headed out to Europe to pick up cash wherever he could. He ended up doing a film in Italy for an almost-unknown director named Sergio Leone and an almost-unknown sound guy named Ennio Morricone. The film was (as history would later record) an "Italian Western," that is, as the iconic western drama was all but disappearing in the US, it was being "re-imagined" by Italian writers and directors, and then filmed in Italy, using mainly Italian actors. On the set, Eastwood spoke in English and everyone else spoke in Italian. (Dubbing later fixed all that). Filming now over, Eastwood took his cash and left. Weeks later, in a bar in another part of Europe, he overheard mention that a certain film was the leading box office attraction on the continent. The name sounded familiar but, frankly, during production, a final name for the film he'd just done had not even been selected. He investigated. Yes, this was the film he had just completed, now titled A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. The rest is history. Sort of. Two sequels were done with Eastwood playing the same character. Monster hits.

    By this point the critics began to acknowledge not only Clint, but also the man behind the camera, Leone, who was one of the most promising directors of the era. HE DID THINGS WITH THE CAMERA THAT NO ONE HAS DONE BEFORE OR SINCE, especially his use of closeups, especially his ability to match powerful emotional orchestrals to key scenes. The fourth film in the series, done by Leone but by this time lacking Eastwood, was ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. (Eastwood meanwhile had returned to America as a major celebrity, formed his own production company, Malpaso, and over time became a director as well as the #1 box office star. Over the course of his career, Eastwood subtly voiced his distaste for Leone's work by scrupulously avoiding all Leone's trademark camera angles, even in his westerns!)

    Back to Leone. While he lent his name to a handful of oddball productions, the last passionate work he left behind as his legacy was this film. OMG. What a film. Showcasing not only Leone's talent behind the camera, but also his musical magic as well as his ability to tell a complex tale like no one before him. It was by and large produced in obscure locations in NA, and the performances of the players, especially James Woods, and also de Niro, could possibly rank even today as the best they have ever given. (Also a performance from a young and charismatic Jennifer Connolly that by itself is worth the price of the ticket)

    The film is magical. But here is the catch. Very few people have ever seen it. Even people who "think" they have seen it, really have not. The studio behind the film went berserk when they saw the length and, fearful of losing dollars when they could be changing reels and selling more tickets, they brought in a butcher to shorten it. Now maybe the new editor was not a butcher by trade, but he was sure one by disposition. The late Roger Ebert said that, in his career, this was the most abusive re-edit he had ever seen. The actual film, the one that Leone left, was not seen until years later when the director's version surfaced. It is astounding. It is magical. It is one of the best films ever made. It is a must see.

  • Leone's ultimate film
    by James Cheney on 16 May 1999

    123 out of 200 people found the following review useful:

    Sergio Leone's films are all love letters to America, the American dreams of an Italian who grew up at the movies, who apprenticed with Wyler, and Aldrich, signed himself Bob Robertson, and gave us Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson as we know them. Sadly, America didn't always repay the compliment. Leone's were "spaghetti westerns", money makers to be sure, but deemed disrespectful of the great tradition of Ford, Walsh and Hathaway. Many critics and Holllywood insiders called his earlier Eastwood films cynical and violent bottom-line commercial exploitation. By the time that they caught on to Leone's genuine popular appeal, the director had already moved on. And, his Once Upon a Time in the West was damned as pretentious, bloated, self-indulgent: an art film disguised as a Western, the Heaven's Gate of its day. That film's canny blend of pop appeal and pure cinematic genius gradually dawned on the powers that be (or were), and helped give rise to the renaissance of American filmmaking in the early seventies. It is worth noting that The Godfather could have been made by Leone, had he chosen. Leone had been pitching a gangster film that would encompass generations, for a generation or two, himself. Rather than do the Puzo version finally thrown back at him, he waited an eternity, and finally realized this, his last finished project. That ellipse of a decade or so between conception and completed movie is paralleled in the film, itself, by Robert De Niro's ("Noodles'") opium dream of the American twentieth century, its promises, and betrayals. Naturally, Leone was betrayed, once again, himself, by America, and this truly amazing film, with its densely multi-layered, overlapping flashback structure was butchered upon its release, becoming a linear-plotted sub-Godfather knockoff in the process. Luckily, the critics had grown up enough in the meantime to finally get a glimmering of what Leone was up to, and demand restitution. Very few saw it properly in theaters, but the video version respects the director's intentions, more or less. Ironically, Leone had foreseen television screen aspect ratios as determining home viewing of the future, and abbreviated his usual wide screen format for this movie, so this most troubled last project was the first released on video to most properly resemble the true cinematic experience. For diehard fans of the Eastwood westerns impatient with this at first, watch those movies till you want and need more. This will eventually get to you. For art film fanatics who don't get the earlier Leones, travel in the reverse direction, and you will be pleasantly surprised. This is the movie that Leone spent a decade conceiving. It will deliver for decades of viewing to come.

  • A sprawling, deliberately paced, and generally a superbly crafted piece of work
    by MisterWhiplash on 19 October 2003

    119 out of 194 people found the following review useful:

    It's been said that when one watches a "spaghetti" western (one of the "Man with no name" films with Clint Eastwood) filmmaker Sergio Leone's trademark cinema style and flair for clear storytelling is instantly recognizable. This is no truer than in his most ambitious effort, Once Upon a Time in America, in which his usage of close-ups, concise camera movement, sound transitions and syncs, and the sudden change in some scenes from tenderness to violence. And, he pulls it off without making the viewer feel dis-interested. Of course, it's hard to feel that way when watching the cast he has put together; even the child actors (one of which a young Jennifer Connelly as the young Deborah) are believable. Robert De Niro projects his subtitles like a pro, with his occasional outburst in the right place; James Woods gives one of his first great performances as Max; Elizabeth McGovern is the heart of the film; and Joe Pesci should've had more than just a one scene appearance, thought it's still good.

    It's a story of life-long friends, in the tradition of the Godfather movies with obvious differences, and the story cuts back and forth to Noodles (De Niro) in his old age returning from exile, looking back on his childhood in Brooklyn, his rise to power with his partners, and the twists come quite unexpectedly. The pace is slow, but not detrimental, and it gives the viewer time to let the emotions sink in. The story is also non-linear, and yet doesn't give away facts to the viewer- this is something that more than likely influenced Tarantino (and many others) in style. By the end, every detail that has mounted up makes the whole experience rather fulfilling, if not perfect. Finally, I'd like to point out the exceptional musical score. Ennio Morricone, as it says on this site, has scored over four hundred films in forty years, including Leone's movies. This would have to be, arguably, one of his ten best works- his score is equally lively, saddened, intense, and perhaps majestic for a gangster epic. Overall, it's filled with the same spirit Leone had in directing the picture, and it corresponds beautifully- there are some scenes in this film that would simply not work without the strings. Grade: A

  • An exquisite, ridiculous movie
    by Larry-115 on 8 April 2004

    107 out of 171 people found the following review useful:

    Once Upon a Time in America is Sergio Leone's epic tale of the lives of four Jewish gangsters in New York City. The period spans decades, ending in the 1970's, but focuses on three periods - the childhood of the gangsters on the Lower East Side, their young adulthood and the old age of the survivors.

    The protagonist, in a manner of speaking, is Noodles (Robert DeNiro), who along with Max (James Woods) calls the shots for the gang. The story focuses on their odd friendship and their relationships with the other gangsters (William Forsythe and James Hayden), and with Fat Moe (John Rapp), a non-gangster friend from the neighborhood.

    Watching Once Upon a Time in America is a very strange experience. Director Sergio Leone directs with the same eclectic, erratic style he employed in his better-known `spaghetti westerns' starring Clint Eastwood. The result is an exquisite, ridiculous movie.

    At least it's a thing of beauty to look at, and this gets you half-way there. At times, the movie has overwhelming visual impact -- when Leone films the actors close-up, they look like portraits painted by the Great Masters, and in wider shots he frames the actors so that they interact electrically with the locations or sets. And the sets are themselves beautifully produced - his reconstruction of the Lower East Side, for instance, is vivid and incredibly detailed. It's all wonderful to see.

    Leone also skillfully uses music to set the scene and convey emotion. True to form, his melancholy theme music is hard at work in the movie, and it performs yeoman service. Now and then he trips up, however -- his trademark use of pan-flute solos is even weirder here than in the spaghetti westerns, and, to be frank, when the Beetles song `Yesterday' popped up at one point, I laughed out loud, so out of place was it, so cloyingly sentimental. For the most part, though, Leone's characters are amazing to look at, set in vivid backgrounds and propelled forward by terrific music.

    Unfortunately, the plot and the writing are terribly clumsy, and so the movie does not make it all the way to the status of a great film. It's a bridge half built, which can be more frustrating than no bridge at all.

    Actually, the movie's premise is intriguing at first, and the fatuous dialogue doesn't get in the way too much. Noodles has been driven out of New York and has lived in exile, hiding for more than 30 years until he receives a mysterious invitation to return to New York for an unknown reason. But the screenplay itself is a toxic brew of histrionics and adolescent bravado, with an almost comically-exaggerated sense of its own gravitas. It was clearly written by a staff of writers, and what's even more clear is that all of them spoke English as a second language. The movie is reminiscent of a story written about adult life by a teenager -- it is not nearly as deep as it thinks it is.

    Troopers all, the very talented actors weather the implausible situations and hokey dialogue as best they can. As the hours roll on (I watched the four-hour long `director's version'), and the story marches toward its unsurprising conclusion, the viewer begins bracing for this with a mixture of dread and relief. At the end, the disappointment is all the more palpable because the cast, sets and cinematography are so good, and some of the initial scenes held great promise.

    The fact that the movie is itself mostly about rough people is absolutely no excuse for any of this, as Martin Scorcese's phenomenal Goodfellas readily proves. Likewise, the fact that the movie is set amidst a haze of opium at certain points is even less excuse for shoddy characterizations . The simple truth is that the movie is trite and makes little or no sense, long version or short.

    Leone assembled an impressive cast of young talent to act out the story of Once Upon a Time in America. As mentioned, most of them try very hard to make the fatuous story float, and some - particularly Woods and Tuesday Weld as Max's sometimes-moll - are terrific. DeNiro himself is strangely out of place and not terribly convincing as a Jewish gangster, although he is good in his scenes from the 1970's. Elizabeth McGovern does what she can with the role of Deborah, but it's probably the worst-written role in the movie, and again her strongly-Celtic face doesn't exactly conjure images of a first-generation Jewish immigrant.

    Received opinion has it that Once Upon a Time in America is a great movie, possibly because it is a very long gangster movie (like those other ones), or because it was an epic work of passion for Leone, or because DeNiro is in it (again, like those other gangster movies), or maybe it's a combination of those elements. But here, as is often the case, received opinion is mistaken. Once Upon a Time in America is a mess, though an often-beautiful one.

  • Dated
    by Julie Liu on 5 November 2016

    43 out of 48 people found the following review useful:

    This film was long, but not in the sense that it is a 3-hour long film and therefore any film that is three hours long is too long, but in the sense that it is an uninteresting story that is dragged out and out and out. It is also full of clichés that try to make Jews actually kind and also physically tough, Italians mafiosos and thugs and of course Chinese docile fu manchus that run opium lairs.

    All these clichés might have been interesting or art 30 years ago, but today we have evolved.

    Bottom-line: this movie serves a narrow band of an audience which is primarily people who were in Hollywood thirty years ago and had a background in Jewish New York City and want to promote it.

    Boring, overlong and nonsense.

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